Preparing for winter finishing on calf-to-beef farm

On beef farms across Ireland, preparation for winter finishing is well underway as animals are housed and settling into their new diets.

Farming in Mount Temple, Moate, Co. Westmeath, Irvine Allen – a participant in the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme – is an example of one such farmer who is beginning to prepare his animals for finishing in the coming months.

Irvine rears approximately 120 Holstein Friesian bull calves each spring. These animals are carried right through to slaughter from 21-30 months-of-age – with the majority being processed as they approach 28-30 months-of-age.

Before enrolling into the Green Acres programme in spring 2019, Irvine had been rearing a mixture of autumn and spring-born Holstein Friesian bull calves, alongside early-maturing bulls and heifers. These animals were brought through to finish from 24-30 months-of-age.

As a result of previously operating this system, the last of Irvine’s early-maturing heifers and bullocks are now currently being finished.

Housing of finishing cattle

Currently on-farm, there is a total of 30 early-maturing heifers that are being primed for slaughter. This group consists of 12 autumn-born and 18 spring-born 2019 females.

Ideally, these heifers should have been finished off-grass this autumn, which would have led to shed space being used for wintering more young stock, rather than fattening cattle.

However, during the period of sourcing calves back in the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019, Irvine had some issues in purchasing calves with qualities that matched his criteria.

As a result, some of these animals underperformed and missed their target slaughter weight and date – which delayed the finishing period until after housing.

The aim for these females is to reach a carcass weight of 280kg and 245kg for the autumn and spring-born heifers, respectively. To achieve this, a target average daily live weight gain (ADG) of 1kg/day has been set for all heifers prior to slaughter before the end of the year.

Fattening and storing steers

There are also 17 autumn-born 2018 steers remaining to be finished on the farm. This group is made up of 14 Holstein Friesian steers, with the remaining three being early-maturing.

These steers encountered a similar issue to the heifers, in that they underperformed and failed to meet their target lifetime ADG of 0.8kg/day prior to housing. Over the finishing period, these steers have been set an ADG target of 1.1kg/day.

As seen in the table (below), this should result in these males reaching an average carcass weight of 320kg in early-February.

Once this group has been finished, a total of 18 spring-born 2019 steers will be the last of the older cattle groups remaining on the farm.

The plan for these bullocks is to be stored over the winter period and return to grass next spring. These will then be finished once they reach close to 28-30 months old.

The reasoning behind retaining this group of steers over the winter and allowing them back out to grass was based on a number of factors.

The number one factor being that it will aid the farm’s cash flow, during a stage where sales would be limited.

A second reason was their failure to meet a target housing weight of 510kg – as they were recorded being, on average, 480kg when weighed on November 4.

By storing these steers over the winter, it will allow them to gain a minimum target of 0.5kg/day and provides Irvine with a heavy enough animal to finish off-grass in the spring.

Finally, it allows for the cost of concentrate spending during the winter to be alleviated slightly, with more focus being placed on animals that can generate a heavy carcass.

Finishing diets

During the finishing period, Irvine will provide his heifers with a diet consisting of grass silage, straw, concentrate and fodder beet.

Like many finishing farmers, keeping the cost of feed margin as low as possible is a key target. As can be viewed in table (below), Irvine’s diet for his heifers is costing approximately, on average, €1.74/head/day.

This diet is formulated to provide an energy density of 0.96 UFV/kg DM.

Comparing this to the steers’ diet, an average cost per head is calculated to be €1.93/day. This diet consists of an energy density of 0.92 UFV/kg DM.

Lower levels of concentrates are being offered to the steers in comparison to the heifers, due to the inclusion of fodder beet in their diet.

Also Read: Making beef and tillage enterprises work hand-in-hand